The modern face of workplace militancy

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THE LONG-SERVING and moderate workforce of E Hillier & Son, a Reading engineering company, never thought they would end their days standing on a picket line.

But they have done daily duty outside the factory for the past 33 weeks, after being dismissed for rejecting pay cuts of as much as 38 per cent, a week's reduction in holiday and the abolition of sick pay. The company makes aerospace components under contract for companies such as British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce.

'In my worst dreams, I did not expect to get the sack for a one-day token strike,' said John Englefield, a machinist with Hillier for 35 years who was sacked within 30 minutes of taking industrial action. Mr Englefield no longer wears the gold watch he was given, 25 years after he joined at 15. He has rejected an offer of pounds 400 redundancy pay - pounds 11.43 for each year of service.

Mr Englefield and 41 colleagues were sacked on 7 December last year after their 24- hour stoppage to protest at proposed new contracts involving pay cuts and worse conditions. The main rate for a skilled worker was to be cut from pounds 253 a week to pounds 166.

Almost every serious strike this year has been over pay cuts, rather than over demands for increases, as employers seek to compete through lower wages. Dave Statham, of the trade union-sponsored Labour Research Department, said he could not remember the last strike over a pay rise rather than over job losses or worsening conditions. 'We have no record this year of any dispute over pay increases which has led to a strike,' he said.

Strikes at British Airways, London Buses and Timex have all involved attempts to cut wages. A group of mushroom pickers in Yorkshire, working for a subsidiary of Booker plc, have also been sacked after holding a vote on a series of strikes against reduced pay after a wage freeze a year earlier.

Gavin Laird, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which is involved in the Hillier dispute, said: 'The pendulum has swung against workers' rights, aided by the worst employment protection in Europe and North America.'

The Hillier workers first agreed to a three-and-a-half day week for five weeks, to help over what they had been told was a temporary financial crisis.

But after a week they found out that their wages had been cut by 20 per cent. The reduction had even been backdated by two weeks to the beginning of the month. 'I was on holiday and came back to find my pay had been cut,' said Lynn Collick, 27, whose father Keith Collick, 60, and boyfriend, David Roberts, were also sacked. Her wage was due to fall from pounds 197 to pounds 148.

Many of those dismissed are near retirement age and have little hope of finding similar work. 'I want my job back. I have only five years left so what chance have I got of getting another job?' said Mr Collick.

The unpaid wages and holiday pay - worth as much as pounds 1,100 - form part of the workers' claims at a series of industrial tribunal hearings to be heard next month. Two members of staff sacked when on holiday and on sick leave have already won their cases.

Hillier & Son, now run by the 'Son', Robert Hillier, has kept production going with about a dozen workers who did not strike and a handful of new recruits. All those still working accepted the new contracts. John West, the general manager, said he had nothing constructive to say about the dispute.

'I can't remember the last time we had a strike, probably one of those national ones back in the 1970s,' said Mr Englefield. 'The word 'loyalty' doesn't mean sod all.'

(Photograph omitted)